Ireland cautiously begins to lift virus lockdown

Dublin (AFP) –


Ireland took the first tentative steps to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions Monday, with outdoor workers returning to their jobs, some shops reopening and sports facilities unlocking their doors.

The modest tweaks to the restrictions in place since March 28 start a staggered process that is set to last until August.

"I'm both pleased and nervous," Health Minister Simon Harris told state broadcaster RTE.

"I'm pleased that we've gotten to this point because of the incredible efforts of the Irish people in suppressing this virus."

"I'm nervous because the virus hasn't gone away, there still isn't a vaccine, there's still people in our country getting very sick, and there's still people dying every day."

Shops such as garden centres, mobile phone shops and farmers' markets were permitted to reopen. People working outdoors such as builders and gardeners also returned to work.

Across Dublin, construction workers could be seen unloading equipment and the cranes above sites lurched back into motion after weeks of inaction.

Hardware stores also reopened and Irish media reports spoke of large queues forming outside.

Traffic was also up in the centre of the capital, but many premises remained boarded up and buses were largely empty.

Football pitches, tennis courts and golf courses were also allowed to resume business, provided they practised strict social distancing.

- Social distancing still applies -

At Dublin's Howth Golf Club, play resumed with a steady trail of players -- in groups of no more than two, and teeing off on a carefully staggered schedule.

"It's great to see the people back," club professional Alan O'Sullivan told AFP.

"I think the biggest issue with people that have been cocooning -- over 70s or if they have an ongoing issue -- is that they haven't seen many people over the last couple of months.

"They will be able to play golf here with one other person but they won't see too many other people."

Citizens are now allowed to meet people from different households in small gatherings outside.

But Harris urged caution as the republic took its first steps in trying "to live successfully and safely alongside the virus.

"Just because somewhere is open doesn't mean we need to go," he said.

On the airwaves, a government radio broadcast urged people to "stay the course" by adhering to social distancing.

There have been 1,543 deaths from COVID-19 recorded in Ireland, according to the department for health.

Reported daily deaths peaked at 77 on April 20, and by Sunday the figure had fallen to just 10.

- 'Reason to hope' -

As with other nations, officials remain fearful that a second wave of infections could overwhelm the healthcare system.

But Prime Minister Leo Varadkar confirmed on Friday that Ireland would press ahead with the first stage of its five-step plan to reopen the nation.

"This gives us reason to hope, but it is not a cause for celebration. We have a long way to go yet," he said.

The effects of the lockdown changes will be monitored for three weeks before the government decides whether or not to move to the next stage.

"Coronavirus is an inferno that is raging around the world", said Varadkar.

"In Ireland it is now a fire in retreat but it's not defeated -- we must extinguish every spark."